Growers form aronia association to develop, promote crop

Managing Editor

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Looking to capitalize on high demand, a group of Maryland and Delaware small acreage farmers agreed to form the Mid-Atlantic Aronia Growers Association.
About 25 farmers attended a meeting last week at the Maryland Department of Agriculture to discuss forming a grower’s association and cultural practices for growing the fruit.
When asked, nearly all agreed to create the group and become members.
“We’re looking for alternative crops, this being one of them,” said Bob Palmer who grows Certified Organic fruits and vegetables in Mardela Springs, Md., selling at farmer’s markets. “I want to try growing aronia. One of the ways in which it is grown fits into our operation very easily.”
Aronia, or Black Chokeberry, is native to the United States and is sought after by juice companies and nutritional supplement makers for its high level of antioxidants and suggested health benefits.
Tested by USDA in 2010, raw aronia was found to have four times the antioxidants of blueberries.
Other research suggests aronia has beneficial properties for fighting colon cancer, diabetes, urinary tract infections and strengthens coronary artery function.
“The whole premise is this fruit is a superfruit,” said Andrew Ristvey, University of Maryland Extension horticulturalist who began research trials on aronia in 2000. “With sustainable production, it could be an extremely valuable market.”
Ristvey said the wholesale price of aronia usually falls in the $2 to $3 per pound range though it has been reported that organic aronia has sold for $20 per pound.
Ristvey’s research so far has focused on establishing and growing a productive crop in Maryland and doing it with organic practices.
He said he encourages growers to consider growing organically for its higher value and the three-year certification process coincides with the time it takes to raise a mature plant.
“That’s the time it takes to get a yield worth selling. It all works out,” he said.
The purpose of forming the association, Ristvey said, is to give Mid-Atlantic growers a larger voice in promoting and marketing the fruit and allow for more information sharing about growing arena.
“It’s networking. That’s the whole idea behind this association. It’s networking and the betterment of our growers,” Ristvey said.
A grower network could also boost support for more research on how to improve fruit quality and to confirm its medical benefits.
“When it comes to claiming quality you’ve got to have research behind it,” Ristvey said.
Promoting quality in the fruit could be where Mid-Atlantic and United States growers find their niche, said Sudeep Mathew, ag agent in Dorchester County, who is working with Ristvey. He said recently a South Korean juice company contacted him and Ristvey in search of 100,000 pounds of organic aronia juice.
Mathew said though they couldn’t fill the order, the company was looking for the juice in the United States specifically because of the regulations in place and perception of quality.
“Our growing practices are far superior then any other  grower practices in the world,” Mathew said. “That perspective is what’s giving us an edge.”
Globally, aronia production is focused in Poland and other areas of Eastern Europe.
In the United States, midwest states lead the pack but farmers there have only been growing a few years. About three years ago, the Midwest Aronia Growers Association was formed.
There are also plans to form a national aronia council, Ristvey said.
Joining Ristvey and Mathew, in the charge to develop an aronia growers association is Gary Marx, an attorney with TMC Strategies, a consulting firm that assists in rural development initiatives. A few months ago, the three men visited with officials from USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service to discuss the steps needed to have arena recognized as an agricultural commodity.
Such recognition, Mathew said, will allow AMS to set a price floor for the crop which could help stabilize sales.
“They wanted to support us but we didn’t have an entity for them to support,” Marx told the growers at last week’s meeting.
Forming grower associations helps the commodity process, Mathew added, by developing information on how much arena is produced in the United States as well as forming a network for trade.
Initially, Ristvey said he, Mathew and Marx will serve as the association’s executive committee and soon select grower members to form a board of directors and develop specific by-laws for the group.
He said the first meeting of the new association could be as soon as January.